Two veterans reflect on military's policy on gaysby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
Congress recently held the first-ever hearing to discuss the law that bans gay men and women from serving openly in the military. The hearing renewed a sense of optimism among gay activists, who have pushed to reverse the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Two gay veterans in St. Paul talk about how the law has affected their lives.
St. Paul, Minn. — Wes Davey and Jesse Berglund both served in the military during the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. And it was that experience that's led both of them to speak out against the law in recent years.
Davey, 59, never talked about his sexuality while he served in the Army in the late 60s. Later, he kept silent in the Minnesota National Guard in the 80s and 90s. And he didn't say anything most recently in the Army Reserves in 2003.
"I just kept quiet," said Davey, a retired first sergeant. "I had to keep quiet. I wasn't going to end up with a discharge for that reason. I just wasn't, not after than many years of honorable service."
Berglund, on the other hand, lived a fairly open life in South Korea, where he was stationed for three years.
He went to nightclubs, dated local men, and told a few trusted Army colleagues he was gay.
Unless gay troops act carelessly or fail to do their jobs, many commanding officers simply turn a blind eye, he said.
In all, Berglund, 31, served in the Army for five years, ending in 2005.
"You just got to lay low, make friends outside the military, or when you're in the military, find people to be friends with that are not going to betray you and not do dangerous things to get yourself in trouble," said Berglund, a retired captain.
While Berglund and Davey lived very different military experiences, they both share a common goal now of standing up against the law that has led to the expulsion of more than 12,000 gay service members.
California Democrat Ellen Taucher is sponsoring legislation to repeal the law that was signed by President Clinton in 1993.
Dubbed the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, the legislation has gained support from 143 bi-partisan co-sponsors, including three Rep. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, and James Oberstar, all democrats from Minnesota.
A growing number of Americans don't think the policy is working, either.
In a recent Washington Post- ABC News poll, seventy-five percent of Americans surveyed said they support allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. The poll also shows this support has doubled for Republicans, from 32 percent 15 years ago, to 64 percent today.
As the military searched for more soldiers to fight in Iraq, there's been a decline in the number of openly gay men and women who have been discharged, according to Adam Ebbin, communications director at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national advocacy group that favors repealing the law.
In 2007, the military dismissed 627 gay and lesbian service members, down from 1,273 in 2001.
"It clearly shows that even in combat, there can be unit cohesion, good morale when openly gay people are serving with their straight counterparts, and that there's no rational basis for a ban," Ebbin said.
A smaller number of Americans support keeping the policy in place.
At the recent congressional hearing, Elaine Donnelly, of the non-profit Center for Military Readiness, said forcing troops to live with openly gay men and women would devastate the military.
"That would put a tremendous, perhaps unacceptable, burden on people who do have religious convictions, or those who simply believe that the policy, the law, as it is now is a good idea," Donnelly said.
While the law has both supporters and detractors, military officials say they will continue to follow congressional direction in enforcing the law, according to Department of Defense Spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.
Service members who have been discharged "have the opportunity to continue to serve their nation and national security by putting their abilities to use by way of civilian employment with other Federal agencies, the Department of Defense, or in the private sector, such as with a government contractor," Smith said in a statement.
But Minnesota veteran Davey still thinks that's not enough. He said gay soldiers often want to talk about their personal lives while serving, but they don't out of fear.
"They know if they do, they're going to get thrown out of the military," Davey said. "And that's just absolutely not fair. They're doing the same thing as everybody else is."
Both he and Berglund said they will continue to speak out about the issue at events around the Twin Cities. And they're both looking forward to working with a new crop of elected officials in Congress next year.
- Morning Edition, 09/03/2008, 7:45 a.m.